There are curtains hung in doorways in traditional Japanese premises that act as dividers. They’re called noren, and were used to help cool homes, shops and bars in summer, while keeping them warm in winter.
They act as a kind of salutation to visitors and can vary in length, from short, head-height pieces of cloth to floor-length curtains.
Protocol says you should breeze right through them, pushing apart the panels confidently – not act like a complete uncultured berk as I do on my first visit to Budo Ba, ducking low under them, lurching forward and stumbling into the bar, providing a decent bit of entertainment for already in-situ drinkers. Luckily, proprietors David Line and Susannah Lemon don’t bat an eye and are quick to sit me down with a warm welcome and cool beer. Dignity restored. Sort of.
If you haven’t yet heard about this place yet it’s not surprising – it’s been kept on the down-low, having opened in November last year above The Grapes on Westgate Street. The slow build of interest isn’t down to worrying management but purposeful tactics, the team enjoying the chance to transition from supper club set-up (theirs going by the name of The Secret Izakaya) to professional kitchen environment.
But, slow down a minute. What exactly is an izakaya bar?
These Japanese joints, not dissimilar to Spanish tapas bars, serve up Japanese beers, sakes and whiskies (the likes of which you won’t find elsewhere in the city), as well as small plates. Food and drink take equal importance in the traditional outfits, which can range from the Michelin-starred to humble neighbourhood premises with just a few seats. Much like a British pub, really.
Climb the stairs to your right as you enter The Grapes and you’ll find bar seating at a small kitchen, where David and his sous chef dart back and forth, plating pickles and grilling skewers while talking to inquisitive folk who love to perch and peer.
Through a second doorway is the restaurant space (which is used for yoga and life drawing in the week), where wooden floorboards and long communal tables sit beneath an ornately panelled Jacobean ceiling.
We pull up pews and move swiftly from soy-toasted pumpkin seeds to pickled shiitake mushrooms (£3.50), which burst with salty, earthy flavours and a hint of sweetness. There is cucumber too (£3), which has been steeped for three days in sake kasu (the rice leftover from the sake-brewing process) giving the discs an aromatic, liquor-rich tang.
When you consider that one of these carefully planned dishes will probably set you back around the same as a bowl of chips from a chain pub, you’ll enjoy them all the more, too.
“Have you had sake before?” Susannah asks. I have a flashback to a cheap-as-chips noodle bar in Bristol in the noughties, where everything tasted better after a few pints but still the sake made you wince. I reply in the negative. So, after asking about our favourite style of white wine, she picks one out for us and we take a break from our grazing to sip on a tiny ceramic cup of Gozenshu 9 Mountain Stream. It’s surprisingly smooth and fragrant, with a warm hint of the cask it’s been ageing in for a year.
Now we’re on a sake roll, and order the miso and sake mussels (£6.50), which come in a bowl of thick and creamy miso broth. The plump, fresh molluscs are extra sweet and the rich broth has a glorious warming effect, brought about by togarashi spices (traditionally a blend of chill, pepper, poppy seeds, citrus peels, ginger and seaweed).
Mackerel sashimi (£6.50) appears as a delicate, finely sliced fillet with a silver skin that shimmers in the low light. Each slice makes an elegant mouthful, with sweetness coming from the rice vinegar it’s marinated in, and a fiery afterburn from the creamy wasabi. The sea bream tartare (£6.50) could have been chopped smaller for me, but the citrus yuzu marinade is zingy and fresh, creating an exciting little plate.
Under a ‘limited supply’ heading are chicken oysters (£4.50). The nuggets of flavoursome meat from the back of the bird are made even more delicious with a salty and warming teriyaki sauce.
All through the dinner, David and Susannah are in and out of the dining room, checking on guests and answering questions.
And that’s what really makes the night memorable. We may be in a restaurant, but Budo Ba still has that cosy, friendly supper club feel.
Budo Ba, Upstairs at The Grapes, 14 Westgate Street, Bath BA1 1EQ